Olga Conway

Islington fish-and-chip-shop proprietor
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The Independent Online

Olga Deborah Diamond, restaurateur: born London 9 December 1930; married 1958 Alan Conway (one daughter); died London 17 February 2005.



Olga Deborah Diamond, restaurateur: born London 9 December 1930; married 1958 Alan Conway (one daughter); died London 17 February 2005.



Olga Conway was the doyenne of fish-and-chip-shop owners. For 20 years she and her husband, Alan, presided over the Upper Street Fish Shop in Islington, a social hub and award-winning restaurant serving, said Time Out, "the best fish and chips in London". When the Blairs were locals, Cherie would come in for takeaways - or, more often, send the nanny with a cheque.

With its red-checked tablecloths, lilies on the counter and frying twice a day ("the proper way: no hotbox here"), it was immensely popular - with adults, who wanted to hear Olga's tales (she was a natural raconteur), and with children, who were welcomed and who were equally eager to see, and draw, Hugo, the Conways' dreadlocked dog (a Hungarian Puli, whose resemblance to a hearthrug confused many during the 15 years he lay in his customary spot). But the real treat would be when Olga sat at your table, asking after family, job, holidays. She had an encyclopaedic memory, remembering exactly what stage you - and your children - were at in your careers, freely dispensing advice on schools, health and life. She was genuinely interested in everyone.

She also had a line in biting repartee. When Marco Pierre White came to eat there, he was so keen on Olga's rhubarb crumble that he asked for another piece, only to be told that he'd have to pay: "If I came to your place, you'd probably charge me £18 for a piece."

The Fish Shop became a focus not just for locals but for the famous - though, this being Islington, the two often coincided - and, as its reputation spread, visitors from as far away as Argentina and Australia came, and remained friends for life. Douglas Adams was a regular. ("We knew he was writing furiously when he had plaice fillets - feeding the brain, he used to say.") Chris Smith, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Patricia Routledge, Danny de Vito, Donald Sutherland - even Jerry Springer - all ate there.

Olga made introductions, sometimes acting as intermediary - but was utterly discreet. She knew of business deals and political machinations because the protagonists, regulars all, had confided in her. The Fish Shop may not have entered public consciousness as did Granita, just up the road, but it played its part in British political life.

Olga Conway's first taste of life behind the counter was in a pub in the East End briefly owned by her father, Harry Diamond, better known as a trade unionist - he was active in the Transport and General Workers' Union. She was in her element, singing at the microphone and serving behind the bar. But, after she married Alan Conway and became mother to Sarah, she used her prodigious energy in working for charity, mainly with the League of Jewish Women. When Sarah went to university she needed another outlet. Her first venture was selling antique clocks, for which she had a particular eye, in the Mall in Camden Passage: characteristically, Olga provided comfy chairs, tea and chat for her customers.

When Alan, a black-cab driver, decided to follow in his family footsteps as a third-generation fish-and-chip-shop owner in 1980 - he had grown up helping to fry fish - Olga joined the business. And her customers followed her.

At the time that they moved into Upper Street, it was far from fashionable, with many buildings boarded up. Behind was Anderson's timber yard, nearby a gaming den, and opposite was a transvestite shop - which Olga discovered soon after moving in when trying to buy her tights there. Pubs had proper names: The Fox (now The Slug and Lettuce) and The Pied Bull - where the Fish Shop, if full, sent customers to wait. With gentrification, businesses like the alternative magazine City Limits and the food co-operative Bread and Roses gave way to estate agents and high-class restaurants, but the Fish Shop remained pre-eminent.

When the Conways announced their retirement in 2000, distraught customers begged them to stay. In fact, despite being able to spend more time with their cherished grandson Harry, retirement did not suit them: they held Friday dinners for friends, many of them former customers, plying guests with good food (not always fish) and excellent anecdotes: she and Alan did a wonderful double act recalling their early days in the East End. Eighteen months later, they were back in business when, with John Moyle, they opened the Fish Shop on St John Street. Olga and Alan were once again where they liked to be, with customers and friends.

But, in 2003, the cancer that Olga had fought off some years before recurred, and she spent much of her last months in hospital. Naturally, she instructed Alan to bring in cakes for the nurses.

Hilary Macaskill

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